Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Second Life Lost Its 'Old Frontier Feel'

Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble wrote in January 2011 that he would be initiating a monthly roundtable to chat about getting the frontier feel back for Second Life:
Conversations with many old Lindens and Residents have led me to conclude that we have lost something of the old frontier feel. Like we were exploring the world together, you knew people, you would bump into them more.  
My time in Cloud Party over the past week brought back some of the nube wonder that infused my first year in Second Life. Every time I logged in, I bumped into people who were hanging out, rezzing stuff, toying with scripted objects and chatting casually with Cloud Party employees. The sense of frontier life was strong and invigorating. It inspired me to consider how Second Life lost its own frontier feel.

2006 Cover Story on Second Life
Raph Koster's Online World Timeline and the the History of Virtual Worlds timeline make it clear that Second Life wasn't the first virtual world. Nevertheless, Philp Rosedale's mind-child blazed many new trails through a succession of frontiers since its Beta launch in 2002. Many of the features that the Second Life community takes for granted today didn't exist ten years ago except in science fiction. Virtual land ownership, ad-hoc avatar customization, virtual world currency and economy, in-world building and scripting, and the primacy of user-created content were all Second Life innovations. This mind map illustrates the depth and diversity of the novel social ecosystem that eventually emerged.

Between the launch of the Beta and a 2006 cover story in Business Week, Second Life grew to 125 square kilometers of virtual real estate and $5 million a month in user-to-user transactions. By the end of 2007 there were over a million active users, many of whom considered themselves to be digital people living significant virtual lives through pseudonymous avatar identities.

2008 marked the turning point from the frontier as Linden Lab shifted its path towards the corporate mainstream. Founding visionary Philip Linden stepped down as CEO and was replaced by ex-advertising agency executive Mark Kingdon. Linden Lab clamped down on the use of its trademarks,
sparking an uproar in the Second Life business, education and blogging communities. The Second Life blog began looking more like a corporate mouthpiece than the informal and transparent communication it had been in the past. Prices on the popular OpenSpace sims were raised drastically without warning, spawning another wave of protest from community members.

In 2009 a
new adult content policy segregated land with sexually explicit content into its own continent. Linden Lab purchased the two major independent virtual commerce sites and consolidated them under the corporate banner. An enterprise version of Second Life was launched as the new CEO made corporate customers a new priority.

The new approach crashed and burned in the summer of 2010 when an estimated 30% of Linden Lab employees were laid off. Mark Kingdon soon resigned as CEO and and the failed enterprise product was discontinued. EA executive Rod Humble was hired in 2011 as Linden Lab began to position itself to go after the mainstream market. In 2012 Linden Lab elected to not make its usual contribution of virtual land for the annual Second Life birthday celebration. Although the Second Life "residents" rallied together to create a 
brilliant exhibition, it's clear that Linden Lab is continuing its disengagement from the creative community.

In a future post, I'll consider whether Second Life can regain the frontier spirit at this stage in its life and how a small startup like Cloud Party might lead the way forward. For now, here's a short video documenting the Second Life website between 2002 and 2004. Just compare it to today's Second Life website and it's easy to see that Second Life is no longer positioning itself as a new frontier.



7 comments:

Mr. Crap Mariner said...

I think we got a bit of that frontier spirit and collaboration and fun back with SL9B, but yeah, we're building monuments to the frontier spirit than actually hitching up wagons and moving West.

As for the rubbing-elbows-with-the-Lindens, hands-on-shaping-the-platform, that's more of an office hours thing, and increasingly Moses-from-the-mountain than working things together.

-ls/cm

Trinity Dejavu said...

Agreed.

Will Burns said...

"Many of the features that the Second Life community takes for granted today didn't exist ten years ago except in science fiction. Virtual land ownership, ad-hoc avatar customization, virtual world currency and economy, in-world building and scripting, and the primacy of user-created content were all Second Life innovations."

*clears his throat*

Virtual Land Ownership: ActiveWorlds 1996/97

Ad-Hoc Avatar Customization: See also the video game industry, for which virtual environments are based in technology.

Virtual World Currency & Economy: Lucasfilm's Habitat | 1989 (Tokens)

In-World Building: ActiveWorlds 96/97

... with Mesh - 96/97.

Scripting: Rudimentary in-world with ActiveWorlds, but provided an API for full scale Bot coding externally.

What Philip Rosedale did was add prims and polish it up a bit. But by no means was Second Life so revolutionary that the ideas didn't exist prior in application already.

Botgirl Questi said...

Crap: I think the SL communitiy's positive hopes rose and fell twice since M left. The first was a wave of enthusiasm when Philip took back the CEO spot. The second when Rodvik made some early moves that seemed to indicate he "got" Second Life. In both cases, the initial positive words weren't realized through a corresponding change in Linen Lab policies.

Will: I admit to a bit of hyperbole. There where a few other companies that had released virtual worlds that included one or more of the features you mentioned. But I still think it's fair to say that Second Life's integration of multiple leading-edge concepts was revolutionary. That's why it captured to imaginations of hundreds of thousands of people in a way that the worlds you mentioned did not. Even though Second Life hasn't pushed the technological envelope for years, it's still pretty much unparalleled today in its rich and unique virtual cultures, thriving virtual art scene and spawning grown for avatar identities.

That said, the main narrative of the post was a move from the freewheeling spirit of an innovative start-up to the conservative and cautious approach of an established mainstream corporation.

michelehyacinth said...

That's how I see the crux too...this systemic shift that occurs from innovative entrepreneurial start-up to procedurized/cautious/established/mainstream corporation. Does the traditional org lifecycle still apply in this day and age? Dunno. The question seems to always be one of "staying hungry" while enjoying broad market success. Apple does this exceedingly well, but being able to do both and sustain both is by no means easy or common. Seems it would be even more difficult for those companies that have innovation as a cornerstone to the brands, like LL by way of SL.

Botgirl Questi said...

Michele: I agree that it would be very difficult for Linden Lab to initiate significant innovation in Second Life. That's probably part of the reason they're working on some new products.

Technical debt, is a key problem. Their architecture is ten years old. For instance, Philip Rosedale said recently that he'd make SL cloud-based if he had to do it over again today.

In the next post on this topic, I'm going to focus on the factors that constrain Linden Lab from innovating through the Second Life platform.

Mr. Crap Mariner said...

"The second when Rodvik made some early moves that seemed to indicate he "got" Second Life. In both cases, the initial positive words weren't realized through a corresponding change in Linen Lab policies."

@Botgirl - Strongly agreed. I kept mumbling "acta non verba" and "manager of managers" when he was announced. When Rod kept saying he would talk about pricing at SLCC 2011, that was the final straw.

It'll be interesting to see if BK's departure results in more holes blasted in the bottom of the boat.

-ls/cm